As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prepares for his trip to Washington, there has been considerable political rhetoric on both sides of the globe directed at the Obama Administration and pushing it to harden its line on Iran.
There’s been comparatively little pushback, which isn’t all that surprising as President Obama really needed to get out in the lead on such rebuttals. Now he has.
He has done so, not accidentally, in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, one of the US’ leading “liberal hawks” on Iran, and a widely recognized pro-Israel voice who was once, in fact, a corporal and prison guard in the Israel Defense Forces.
Obama knew this was an interviewer who would focus on taking tough stands, who would surely be leading towards questions about how the United States was going to address Netanyahu’s concerns, but who also would, ideally, like to end up with an interview that both strengthened Obama and toughened the US’ stance toward Iran.
If that’s so, I’m not at all sure Goldberg got his wish.
The headline of the interview is a line Clint Eastwood could easily have uttered—“Obama to Iran and Israel: ‘As President of the United States, I Don’t Bluff.’” But just what is it that he’s not bluffing about?
In the interview, at least, Obama sticks quite hard to his established policy, and in fact defends it. He re-states his point that “all options are on the table,” but also implies that a military option is the choice of last resort.
Obama cleverly defends this by pointing out that
…the only way, historically, that a country has ultimately decided not to get nuclear weapons without constant military intervention has been when they themselves take [nuclear weapons] off the table. That’s what happened in Libya, that’s what happened in South Africa. And we think that, without in any way being under an illusion about Iranian intentions, without in any way being naive about the nature of that regime, they are self-interested. They recognize that they are in a bad, bad place right now. It is possible for them to make a strategic calculation that, at minimum, pushes much further to the right whatever potential breakout capacity they may have, and that may turn out to be the best decision for Israel’s security.
In other words, a military strike may set back the Iranian nuclear program, but it will also increase their perception that they really need the bomb, whereas diplomacy and pressure may convince them to decide on a different course, as has happened in other countries, including one led by a ruthless dictator.
All of this is couched in pro-Israel rhetoric, sympathy for concerns raised by echoes of the Holocaust in Israel, and a lot of tough talk. But in substance, the policy remains the same.
At several points in the interview, Goldberg raises, or implies, the issue of “red lines” which Netanyahu has urged the US to adopt and has enlisted friendly members of Congress to help him to push. Obama stands by the same bottom line he has consistently taken: that he would not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. This stands in stark contrast to the capability to produce one, something Iran might already have and a line that the Israeli leadership and their allies in Congress have been pushing for.
I come away from this interview with a sense that Obama is not anywhere near closing the door on an attack on Iran, but is also resisting the pressure to accelerate the possibility. He remains determined to find a way to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon (if such is the Iranian intent in the first place, a point Obama concedes publicly, but seems to be a conclusion he has not yet really jumped to) without using military force.
But the way Obama is phrasing this, and especially in his decision to make these statements to Goldberg – a man who will help create this framework – indicates that he is not inviting a disagreement with Netanyahu. Indeed, the rhetoric being employed in this interview would allow Netanyahu to return to Israel and brag that he got the Obama Administration to toughen its stance on Iran.
He did this by making it clear that the development of a nuclear weapon is a red line, one the US will not allow Iran to cross. This is not really a shift in policy, but it is a clarification, one that Netanyahu can use back at home to show that he has gotten the US to reaffirm and strengthen the military option. But it’s not actually a casus belli because there remains no indication that such development is underway. Indeed, Obama states that
…our assessment, which is shared by the Israelis, is that Iran does not yet have a nuclear weapon and is not yet in a position to obtain a nuclear weapon without us having a pretty long lead time in which we will know that they are making that attempt.
So, without shifting US policy away from that which it has been holding to all along, Obama gives Netanyahu what he needs to look good to his more hawkish supporters here and in Israel. It remains to be seen if the Israeli Prime Minister will leave it at that or try to embarrass Obama again as he did last year.
As a postscript, there is one other key take away from this interview: despite the length of the conversation with Goldberg, the Palestinians are not even alluded to, let alone mentioned by either him or Obama.
That is a sure sign of two things. One, the issue of the Palestinians is, barring some event which forces attention back to them, almost certainly off the table until after the election in November.
And two, with Fatah and Hamas continuing to work on reconciliation and with anti-Israel sentiment growing in a post-Mubarak Egypt that is currently unsure if its annual US aid will be discontinued or diminished (though I doubt either will happen now that the American NGO workers have been allowed to leave), the very serious strategic and possibly policy issues that are being raised are similarly on the back burner.
This could well lead to serious problems when they come to the fore. But at AIPAC this year, the Palestinian issue might not even exist.